2021 College Football Games We Can't Wait to Watch

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistJanuary 16, 2021

2021 College Football Games We Can't Wait to Watch

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    Matt Cashore/Associated Press

    The moment one season ends, college football teams, fans and media alike are starting to circle dates on the calendar.

    From key conference clashes to top-ranked showdowns to rare matchups, the 2021 schedule has plenty of interesting games. As if that's not enough, well-known programs are gearing up for neutral-site games, potential breakout teams have an important clash (or two!) and on and on.

    The undeniable truth is some of these contests won't have the nationalread: College Football Playoffsignificance we hope or expect. But the variety of these matchups means several of the highlighted games will be pivotal in the results of 2021.

    Conference championship games are not considered. The focus is entirely on regular-season contests.

Top Neutral-Site Games

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    L.G. Patterson/Associated Press

    Nebraska vs. Illinois (Aug. 28 in Dublin, Ireland): Will the result have major national implications? Probably not. Still, it means college football is back. And it's in Ireland!

    Alabama vs. Miami (Sept. 4 in Atlanta): The reigning national champions kick off 2021 against Miami. While the Hurricanes return quarterback D'Eriq Kingpending his recovery from a torn right ACLAlabama will count on recent 5-star QB Bryce Young to lead an overhauled offense.

    Clemson vs. Georgia (Sept. 4 in Charlotte): Get ready for "Game of the Year" headlines on this one. Clemson has reached the CFP in six straight seasons and is entering the DJ Uiagalelei era. Georgia, meanwhile, is a definite top-five preseason team.

    Wisconsin vs. Notre Dame (Sept. 25 in Chicago): The 2020 clash at Lambeau Field didn't happen, but the teams are headed to Soldier Field in the fall. Despite their relatively close proximity, Wisconsin and Notre Dame haven't played since 1964.

    Georgia vs. Florida (Oct. 30 in Jacksonville): Barring a surge from Missouri or Kentuckyunlikely, for surethe World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party will determine the SEC East champion for the seventh straight year.

Traditional Nonconference Games

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    Jay LaPrete/Associated Press

    Oregon at Ohio State (Sept. 11): Oregon has earned the Pac-12 crown in consecutive seasons, and Ohio State is the four-time reigning Big Ten champion. Ohio State begins the year at Minnesota, but this clash with Oregon is a critical test for the Buckeyes' new quarterback (CJ Stroud, Jack Miller or Kyle McCord).

    Washington at Michigan (Sept. 11): That same Saturday in Ann Arbor, Michigan is also hosting a Pac-12 contender. Jim Harbaugh recently signed an extension, but the updated contract does little to remove him from the dreaded hot seat. While knocking off Washington won't increase his job security dramatically, Harbaugh can hardly afford a loss to a comparable team so early.

    Iowa at Iowa State (Sept. 11): The battle for the Cy-Hawk Trophy should have more meaning than usual in 2021. Iowa should be a threat in the Big Ten West, and Iowa State has CFP dreams.

    Nebraska at Oklahoma (Sept. 18): Perhaps this is nostalgia speaking, but former Big 12 adversaries are set to square off in Norman. The programs haven't met since the 2010 conference title game, and Nebraska bolted for the Big Ten after that season.

    Auburn at Penn State (Sept. 18): Not only are both programs hoping to bounce back from a disappointing 2020, but this is the first-ever regular-season meeting between the teams.

    Oklahoma State at Boise State (Sept. 18): Power-conference school headed to the Blue Turf? Count us in.

Cincinnati's Major Tests

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    Aaron Doster/Associated Press

    Cincinnati went 9-1 in 2020, only narrowly losing to Georgia in the Peach Bowl. Since quarterback Desmond Ridder has elected to return, the Bearcats should be a legit team in 2021, and the early portion of their schedule doubles as a prove-it stretch.

    Luke Fickell's team has a couple of trips to potential top-15 teams on the docket: Indiana (Sep. 18) and Notre Dame (Oct. 2).

    Even if Cincinnati wins both, the CFP selection committee's history says it won't be enough for the Bearcats to realistically be a contender. But the pressure for expansion would only increase if the Bearcats end undefeated with these two victories.

    Defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman left for Notre Dame, but running back Jerome Ford, defensive end Myjai Sanders and cornerbacks Ahmad Gardner and Coby Bryant all return with Ridder.

TBD Big 12 and Pac-12 Games

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    Oklahoma has four appearances in the seven-year history of the College Football Playoff. But when the Sooners have missed the CFP, the Big 12 hasn't sent a representative.

    Iowa State and Texas are hoping to change that in 2021. Iowa State returns a strong majority of its roster, including star offensive players Brock Purdy, Breece Hall and Charlie Kolar. Texas must replace QB Sam Ehlinger, but the Longhorns will be a popular team because of new coach Steve Sarkisian.

    • Iowa State at Oklahoma
    • Oklahoma vs. Texas (in Dallas)
    • Texas at Iowa State

    Although the Pac-12 doesn't have a widely accepted CFP front-runner, the South Division should be a terrific race. USC hosts Utah and travels to Arizona State, which goes to Utah. That round robin of games is likely to determine the division winner.

    Oregon, Washington and Cal will likely be the primary contenders in the North Division. Washington hosts both Oregon and Cal, while Oregon is at home against Cal.

The Alabama Games

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    So, SEC team, you want to be a contender.

    The road to a championship, as usual, runs through Alabama.

    And other than Georgia, every top-valued SEC program takes on the Crimson Tide in 2021. While LSU travels to Tuscaloosa, each of Florida, Texas A&M and Auburn hosts Nick Saban's team.

    Though none of those matchups have a date, Alabama always takes on LSU and Auburn in November. Whichever of Florida and Texas A&M is scheduled first, naturally, will be the marquee gameafter the Tide meet Miami on Labor Day Weekend.

    Alabama fatigue is understandable. But until proven otherwise, the Crimson Tide are the premier roadblock in every season.

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